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Review: Athol Fugard's BOESMAN AND LENA and The Need To Be Seen Through Another's Eyes

The soft clanging of pots and pans gently hitting each other is the first indication that the title characters of South African playwright Athol Fugard's 1969 indictment of Apartheid segregation, Boesman and Lena have arrived.

Boesman and Lena
Sahr Ngaujah and Zainab Jah
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

As written fifty years ago by the now-celebrated 86-year-old, the refugee couple, played with stark sensitivity by Sahr Ngaujah and Zainab Jah in director Yaël Farber's exquisitely somber production, are carrying everything they own as they seek a spot in the mud flats of the river Swartkops to settle for the night. Boesman's back is draped with a large curtain of plastic that can be used as a tent. The clanging cookware hangs from ropes around Lena body, as she stands perfectly straight to balance more supplies on her head.

Though designers Susan Hilferty (set and costumes), Amith Chandrashaker (lights) and Matt Hubbs (sound) do a superb job of creating a bleak, lifeless landscape to replicate the playwright's setting, the two characters slowly enter from the back of the auditorium, looking like they could be contemporary homeless New Yorkers who have entered the theatre seeking warmth from the chill of 42nd Street.

Before taking the stage, the pair takes in their surroundings, staring firmly at the crowd in the theatre before exiting through a side door. It's the same door they will exit at the conclusion of the two-hour long intermissionless production where, instead of taking bows, they will remain in character and silently observe viewers without acknowledging them.

So is Farber telling us that these two are not in the Eastern Cape, just outside of Port Elizabeth, but have decided to set up their temporary shelter in one of the Pershing Square Signature Center's theatres? Lena's oblique explanation of why they're out on the road is "Blame the white man. Bulldozer!"

When they do take the stage, they discover a third character, merely named Old African by the playwright. As played by Thomas Silcott, he is a corpse-like presence buried inside his musty coat, softy speaking in Xhosa, which neither of the new arrivals understand.

Boesman and Lena
Thomas Silcott and Zainab Jah
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Forgoing a linear plot, BOESMAN AND LENA is a study of how inhumane treatment can transform those who lose their identity by systematic abuse. We see evidence of Boesman's physical abuse of Lena but, with nowhere else to go, she stays with him and fights back with emotional torment. The need to be seen in the eyes of another, to be something beyond the skin, is the force that keeps them together through years of being made to wonder from their homes after being evicted by privileged whites.

While Boesman wants nothing to do with the Old African, Lena befriends him, at one point relating a story of how, at one point in their nomadic travels, a dog started following them.

"We waited for Boesman to sleep, then he came and watched me," she explains. "All the things I did - making the fire, cooking, counting bottles or bruises, even just sitting, you know, when it's too much."

"Another pair of eyes," she tells her new friend. "Something to see you."

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From This Author - Michael Dale